Thursday, October 13, 2016

Week 30 - Kernels and Bits (part 1)

Michael Salsbury
The mysterious "Agency" had been steering me into trouble and cheerfully bailing me out of it for too long. It was time to call my own shots again, make my own trouble, and get myself out of it... or not.

Independence is a career criminal's most valuable asset. If you have to rely on others for anything, whether it's a fake mustache you wear on the job or a laser cutter you use to get into a building, you're taking a big risk. Your supplier could be compromised and turn you in, or they could decide that the bounty on your head is worth more than your business.

Needless to say, I pride myself on being able to make my own tools, find and plan my own capers, carry them out without help, and (of course) keep all the loot for myself. I don't have to worry about anyone ratting me out.

The Agency's meddling in my life bothered me on several levels. Ever since , it seemed that they orchestrated every move I made, then somehow pulled my fat out of the fryer when things went sideways. I didn't like someone else controlling my fate. I liked it even less when I had no idea who 'they' actually were. Were they some kind of government outfit? A terrorist organization? A crime syndicate? A recruiting arm for Alliance intelligence? I had no idea. Worst of all, it was all starting to feel comfortable and familiar. That meant I was becoming dependent on them. I couldn't let that continue.

I needed time away from my new-found benefactors. I checked everything I had for any kind of bugs or tracking devices, then bought my way aboard the first freighter leaving the system. Starting at the next planet, I would buy tickets to several destinations. I'd pick one at random, and give away the others. I repeated this several times. If they were trying to follow me, I wanted them to have as confusing a trail as possible. I'd changed disguises at each stop, too. Good luck picking me out on cameras. When I was pretty sure I'd given them the slip, I stowed away on a freighter to Pintelli-IX, out on the rim of Alliance space. Let's see them find me now.


Taking the freighter to Pintell-IX felt like a mistake the moment it took off. Bedding down on the floor of a cargo hold filled with livestock made it not only feel like a mistake but smell like one, too. When the ship finally landed on the planet's surface and the rear cargo hatch dropped open, I wanted to kiss the ground. I didn't, though, because Pintell-IX used to be a toxic waste dump for the Sylkarans. Although the Alliance swore it had been cleaned up, I didn't want to take chances. I waved goodbye to the  and stepped out into the fresh air.

From the looks and pinched noses of the people passing me on the street, I knew I needed a shower pretty badly. That, or they just didn't like me. I stepped up to the door of a building with the very original name "Hotel" painted on it. As the robot porters opened the doors for me, I could swear one of them waved its hands like it was blowing away the stench as I passed by. When I looked directly at it, though, it was standing at attention.

The bot behind the front desk didn't seem to notice my unpleasant aroma. Its face contorted into a fake plastic smile. "Good afternoon, sir. How may I assist you?"

"I'd like a room," I told it. "One with a shower." I knew some border planets didn't offer that amenity.

"Certainly, sir. All our rooms are so-equipped. The rates are posted on the wall behind me," it said, gesturing toward the sign.

"Excellent. I'll take the king with a balcony. Can you send up a clothier in about an hour, along with a steak dinner?" I'd had to spend the last three days cooped up with the cattle and their excrement. I considered that last request a bit of revenge, and tasty revenge at that.

"Yes, sir. Please complete the check-in form on the screen in front of you and provide a deposit of five hundred credits. Any overage will be refunded when you check out." It held out a hand.

Reaching into the bag I carried, I pulled out a thousand-credit note. "Keep the change," I told the machine and placed the bill in its hand.

I'll admit, hardly anyone tips a robot. Then again, few people realize that most hotel and restaurant bots are programmed to provide additional services to guests who tip. When the robots aren't busy serving other guests, they'll find things to do for those who tip, based on the amount of the tip. What I had just handed the desk jockey here would practically give me the run of the hotel and its robotic staff. This made tipping the robots more beneficial than tipping most humans.

"Thank you, kind sir," it said, the bill vanishing quickly. "Sir qualifies for a free upgrade to our executive suite."

"OK." A porter robot whirred up to my side. "May I carry your bag, sir?"

"No, I'll keep it with me."

"As you wish sir. This way." It whirred off toward the elevator. I followed it.

The robot opened the door for me and turned down the bed sheets. It held out its hand. I gave it a ten-credit note. It saluted, rolled out the door, and closed it.

I put down my bag and pulled out my scanner. I'd learned a few trips back that the Agency liked to bug the rooms it put me in. I assume they were listening for opportunities to help, or maybe they were just voyeurs. The scanner looked like a standard computer tablet, and I made a show of pretending to look up information about the hotel, the planet, and the latest news. As I did this, the scanner looked for any optical or audio bugs in the room. It found none.

I couldn't suppress the smile when I realized I was finally on my own again. I put the scanner back in my bag, then went to the bathroom to clean up. 

A few minutes with some hot water and soap, and I felt much less like a feces-covered farm hand. I hoped that I smelled a lot less like one, too.

There was a knock at the door. I activated the video monitor and saw two robots outside. One bore the hotel logo. The other was painted to look as though it was wearing a suit. I assumed it was the clothier I'd requested. I opened the door and let them in.

The hotel robot deposited a steak dinner on the table and arranged a place setting for me. I dropped a five credit note in its outstretched hand. It bowed, thanked me, and rolled out of the room. 

I looked at the other robot. "I assume you are the clothier I asked for?"

"Yes, sir. I can wait until you finish eating to obtain your measurements."

"No," I said, dropping the robe. "Go ahead. Do it now."

The robot circled around me, its laser measuring systems capturing my waist size, chest size, and other particulars. "Measurements complete, sir. How may I assist you?"

"I'd like a business suit, matching current Alliance styles. I'd also like five casual outfits, slacks with short sleeves. Matching shoes, with foam insoles. The casual outfits should all be laundered and worked sufficiently to simulate several months of wear and washing. I'll need five pairs of underwear and socks as well."

The screen on its chest showed an image of me and a selection menu. I picked out the items I wanted and added them to the order, then tapped the 'order' button. "One moment, sir," the robot said. 

It was undoubtedly calculating the cost of producing the wardrobe I had requested, and running its pricing algorithms to see what it thought I would be willing to pay. I decided to save it the trouble. I pulled another thousand-credit note out of my bag.

"Will this be sufficient?" I held out the bill. The robot grabbed it.

"More than sufficient, sir. Let me calculate your change."

"You keep it, provided the clothes show up here within the hour,  and pressed, in a suitcase."

"Yes, sir," it said before it showed itself out. As I sat down to eat, I imagined the flurry of activity going on at the robot's home base. By now, it had transmitted my measurements to the factory robots, which were busy selecting fabrics, adjusting patterns, and sewing the clothes. 

The steak was only slightly better than some military rations I've eaten. Despite the lack of creativity in the establishment's name, I expected a bit more from "Hotel" than this length of rehydrated leather. No matter, I didn't plan to stay here any longer than necessary. I'd wander around a bit, find something interesting to steal, and move on. This time, I'd do it without the Agency sticking its hand in.


A few blocks from Hotel, I found the public market. One of these always seems to spring up near the spaceport on every planet. Eighty percent of the merchandise is the same. Spaceship parts, rations, clothing, local fruits and vegetables, a few weapons vendors, and the occasional junk vendor. I've always found the junk stands the most interesting. That turned out to be the case here, too.

On the woman's table, between a stack of Alliance emergency rations with the expiration dates rubbed off and a box full of mangled silverware sat what appeared to be a security camera. In my line of work, you make it a point to become familiar with every make and model of security camera you can. You need to know their field of view, their power source, whether they can store video, and so on. Knowing their limits and weaknesses is critical when planning a job.

"How much?" I said, holding the camera up.

She looked at me. "One hundred credits."

I put the camera down and turned away.

"Wait, wait," she said. I turned back. "For you, fifty credits."

"Throw in that tool kit," I said, pointing at it, "and you have a deal."

She shook her head. "Sixty credits with the tools."

"Fifty-five," I said, holding the notes out in front of me. "Final offer."

She smiled and grabbed the bills. I picked up the toolkit and camera.

I bought very little else in the market. Nothing particularly interested me. 

I ate lunch at a small cafe near the market and returned to my hotel room.


The security camera I'd picked up at the market intrigued me. A bit of research showed that it was a common camera from the  Empire, often used in their government installations. Like most Alliance  knew about the  Empire. Parents told their kids horror stories about the things Sylkarans did to Alliance members who crossed their borders. Holding a piece of their technology in my hands both excited and scared me. Was it still active? Could it still call home to its makers? What would they do if they knew I had it? 

I allowed myself that moment of fear, since fear sharpens the mind, then reminded myself that crossing the border into Alliance space to come after me for a simple security camera was silly. These things are a credit a dozen, and anyone crossing the neutral zone between the Alliance and the  Empire would immediately invoke the wrath of the Alliance. No one would start a war over a security camera. I took a deep breath and set to work examining the circuitry.

Internally, it wasn't much different from the cameras you see all over Alliance space. It had its own power source and could communicate with a computer network wirelessly. The image sensor seemed to be pretty high-resolution and could probably be used for mock-3D rendering if needed. The hardware was otherwise pretty unremarkable.

I plugged it into my tablet and started poking about in the software. My late father taught me a lot about electronics and computers. He worked for Starlight Robotics, the company that manufactures most of the robots used by Alliance worlds. Dad learned much of what he knew from his father, who learned it from his, and so on. This long line of computer experts passed on to me some programming and hacking skills that few in the Alliance possessed. I also knew quite a bit about the history of computer evolution in the Alliance. So when I tell you that what I found in this camera's computer operating system shocked me, you'll know just how unusual that discovery was.

In a few hours, I worked out a way to take complete control of the camera without physically touching it. I can do that with Alliance cameras, too, but only for short periods of time. Alliance tech contains built-in countermeasures at the operating system's most basic level, the kernel, that allow it to detect tampering and reset itself. On a good day, I can hack an Alliance camera long enough to run past its field of vision or get it to wipe its stored footage. Because they're so well protected, it's much better to avoid them, but that's not always an option.

This  gadget, on the other hand, lacked the countermeasures you'd find in any Alliance device. That probably meant it was an ancient design, which still made it interesting. The camera internals  comparable to modern low-end Alliance designs. If this thing was ancient, the Sylkarans might be far ahead of us technologically. That certainly explained the Alliance's unease about them.

Over the next several days, I combed the stalls in the market for other  gadgets. Like sharks smelling blood in the water, the shopkeepers began seeking me out when they found something . A few asked if I was a  agent. To prevent those rumors from causing undue attention, I asked them to do a bio-scan on me. I explained that I was a university professor doing research for a book about  engineering methods. This seemed to satisfy their curiosity.

A few of the  items I purchased were still new. Their date of manufacture appeared to be only a few months back. Every computerized  gadget I purchased seemed to be based on the same operating system the original camera had used, and every one of them seemed to have the same vulnerable kernel design. With a bit of experimentation, I found that I could command every gadget I'd purchased. When I say "command" the gadget, I mean that I could completely control it. I could order a camera to shut down, an alarm system to change its access code, or a cleaning robot to intentionally trip those who walked past it. Having spent my career in Alliance space, finding so many devices so vulnerable staggered the imagination.

There was a knock at the door. Another shopkeeper from the market undoubtedly found a new  trinket for me. I activated the visitor camera but got no image. This meant that whoever was on the other side of the door could knock it out. That meant the  or worse. I wasn't sticking around to find out. I turned and grabbed my bag from the bed. Before I could reach the balcony, the door burst open and I felt something sting the back of my neck. I was unconscious before I could grab it.


I awoke in a drab room, bound to a chair. As I struggled to try to free myself, the door opened and three men in gray suits walked in. Each sat in one of the chairs facing mine.

"What's going on?" I asked them, continuing to try to free a hand.

"Derek Biggs, we are representatives from The Agency. I believe you're familiar with us?"

I felt my jaw drop open. I hadn't used by real name in twenty years. Somehow, these men knew it. I wondered what else they knew. I stopped struggling and decided to find out. "Yes."

"We've been watching you for a while. You led us on quite a merry chase. We thought we'd lost track of you forever until some of our agents noticed a human buying up  technology. She sent us your photo. We arranged for you to get access to as many different  items as possible, to see what you were up to. When we realized what you were doing, we brought you in."

"OK. So you're what, the Alliance Intelligence Agency?"

He laughed. "No, most definitely not. We are much older than they are. We've existed longer than the Alliance. We used to protect the Earth from home-grown threats. Now we protect the Alliance. We operate outside the government, and are not subject to its rules."

"You're a criminal organization, then?"

"In a sense of the word, yes. In intention, no. As I said, we protect the Alliance from threats that it may not see or be equipped to stop."

"That sounds more like a police force than a criminal organization."

He nodded, taking out a cigar and lighting it. "You have a point, but we're not police, either. We're... well.... unique. We recruit the best and most successful criminal and scientific minds in the galaxy, train them in the latest techniques, and put them to work. Before the Alliance, we stopped power-hungry dictators from conquering other nations, prevented heists that might have toppled friendly governments, and stopped assassinations. We infiltrated criminal organizations to neutralize them from within. We do the same sort of work now - but on a galactic scale."

"That sounds like a spy organization to me."

"It does, and that's certainly part of what we do. We collect intelligence, through sources that are both legal and illegal. We employ soldiers, spies, thieves, and assassins. But we don't answer to politicians or military leaders. We are autonomous. Earlier, I said that we're a criminal organization, in a certain sense. If the Alliance leaders knew for certain that we existed and could find us, they would consider us criminals and try to shut us down. We expend considerable effort preventing that."

"What does any of this have to do with me?"

"Well, my boy," he said, drawing from the cigar, "we see that you've discovered a weakness at the heart of most  technology. We have agents in  space. They could be much more effective if they could do what you seem to be able to do. We'd like to learn how you're doing what you're doing."

How did they know what I was doing? How did they know what I had figured out?

He smiled at me. "We modified that tablet of yours. Your scanning program ignores any device we put our signature on. We've had your room bugged for a while. We watched you crack every device we gave you. We couldn't figure out how you were doing it, though. We decided to bring you in and find out."

"Sorry," I said. "Trade secret."

"I'm prepared to pay, and also to offer you membership in the Agency."

I shook my head. "Not interested. I work alone."

He stood up. "Don't be so hasty. Before you turn us down, at least see what we can offer you. I think you'll be surprised. Release his bonds."

The men with him freed me from the chair. I stood up. My instinct told me to make a break for it, but I wanted to know more about the Agency. In order to stay clear of it, I needed to know what its capabilities were, and what resources it had to catch me with. I needed them to tell me more.


For the next three hours, The Agency man showed me around their facility. I know I didn't see it all. There were entire floors we passed, and sections of floors that were dismissed as "not all that interesting" (yet secured with at least six security scanners I recognized). They clearly weren't letting me in on all their secrets, which was fine. I didn't plan to let them in on all of , either.

I had to admit that their capabilities were impressive. They had access to intelligence spanning the entire Alliance. They had labs filled with disguises, weaponry, and robotics that made the best I'd run across look like toys. They had to be at least a generation of technology ahead of the Alliance, and me. That thought worried me. 

"You're probably wondering if we're planning to take over the Alliance. We're not. We have to stay a step ahead of the best of the Alliance  because we need to stay undetected. They would see us as terrorists and  when in  we're just the opposite. We exist to eliminate the threats that the Alliance cannot. Rob a bank? We don't care. Bankrupt a planet? We'll come for you."

"What happens then?" 

"That depends on the person, and the situation. If you have talent and you're willing to commit it to The Agency, we bring you in. If you don't want to join, we wipe your memory and drop you back in Alliance space to live a new life. If you're too deranged or violent, we'll make sure you can't hurt anyone ever again."

I looked at him. "You mean you'll kill them."

He shook his head. "No. At least, not always. We view killing as a last resort. That's what attracted us to your case file. You've committed all sorts of crimes, but you've never killed. In fact, you go out of your way to avoid it. I suspect you'd rather go to prison than kill."

I nodded. "What did you mean by 'my case file' earlier?"

"We have an AI watching the galactic news feeds. When it discovers a gifted criminal operating anywhere in the galaxy, the system opens a case file and begins accumulating data. If the perpetrator seems to be eluding the local police, they represent a potential threat to the Alliance. We either help the authorities bring them in, capture them  or in the most violent cases, arrange for them to meet an untimely end."

"I gather we're talking because you're trying to decide what to do with me?"

He nodded. "The others said you aren't ready to join. I  and had you brought in. I wanted you to see who we are and what we can  so that you know what you're being invited to take part in."

"Which is what?"

"As a member of The Agency, you'll have access to our full resources. Need a small, fast, undetectable ship? It's yours. Need a dozen tiny grenades that can knock out a room full of people? No problem. Need a custom device of some kind? Let our scientists and engineers know and they'll get to work. Need backup? One agent or a fleet of ships, it's no problem.  We'll make it happen. If we need to, we can even call in favors from the Alliance fleet."

"Suppose I said yes. What then?"

"We'd enroll you in our training program. We'd teach you everything we know, and you'll probably teach us a few things. You'll go on a few missions with an experienced agent, then we'll send you off on your own."

"And if I say no?"

"Given your talents, I hope you won't. If you say no, we wipe your memory. You'll forget who you were. You'll forget what you know. We'll implant a new personality and a new history. You'll become one of  of faceless drones working in government and industry."

"Not much of a choice."

"Not for folks like you and me."

"When did you join?"

"Thirty years ago. I had quite a little caper going on Grendel-3. I'd managed so scam billions of credits from the wealthiest families on the planet. Just as I was about to vanish with the money and retire on a little planet of my own, The Agency pulled me in. I spent a while in the field before they put me behind this desk."

"I see." Images of myself behind that desk sent a chill through me.

"Have you made up your mind, Derek?" The expression on his face reminded me of a lion about to pounce on its prey. 

I didn't like the options. If I refused to join, they'd wipe my brain and leave me somewhere else. If I joined, I'd be going back to school, I'd spend time with an Agency babysitter, and in time I'd lose all my independence. The only way forward seemed to be to accept their invitation, learn what I could about them, and watch for an opportunity to bolt. If I learned enough about them, maybe I could stay clear of them for the rest of my life. It was better than nothing. "I'm in."

"Good," he said. I felt that sharp pain in the back of my neck again, and the room went black.


When I awoke, I found myself locked in a cell. Between the gleaming white walls, gleaming white furniture, and high-noon light level, it was blinding. My eyes adjusted, albeit slowly. The Agency could  use a new interior decorator.

They had removed the clothes I was wearing and placed me in a bright pink jumpsuit. It wasn't my color, but there wasn't an alternative. I assume the color was designed to signify to everyone on the base that I was a newbie, not to be trusted. That was fine with me. It meant that they were used to seeing me in pink. When I tried to escape, switching outfits would buy me some time. They'd be looking for the guy in pink, and I'd be in... well, not pink.

I'd had a couple of emergency tools hidden under my skin, designed as a last-ditch escape measure. A few quick pats and I saw they'd removed those. The Agency was certainly thorough. They didn't want me leaving unexpectedly. This was probably something they'd had to deal with in the past.

The door opened and an attractive young woman entered. He wore a uniform like many of the staff I'd seen around The Agency's base. "I'm here for your physical training," she said. "Come with me."

I followed her down a series of corridors into a room with padded walls, ceiling, and floors. "What's this?" I asked.

"Training room," she said. "Prepare to defend."

Over my lifetime, I'd taken every opportunity to learn martial arts and fighting skills. They'd saved me on multiple occasions, against opponents much larger than me. I was confident I could hold my own against any fighter in the galaxy. I was wrong. She pinned me to the floor within seconds.

We spent the next hour sparring like this. I call it sparring, but that's not really what it was. She would attack. I would try to defend, and fail. She would tell me to attack. I would  and fail. It was all very humiliating - not to mention painful.

When she finally told me we were finished for the day, I asked "What was I supposed to be learning here? That you could kick my ass?"

"No," she said. "You were learning humility, a lesson you sorely need to learn. I was learning just how much training you need before we can put you in the field. You would do fine against most normal threats, but a seasoned Agency operative - or one of our enemies - could have killed you easily. I can't allow that. When an agent dies, it makes me look bad."


The next few weeks passed this way. An Agency instructor showed me how little I knew, and how much more they did.

I learned that my electronics skills were decades behind what Agency engineers could design and build. They taught me what they could.

My disguise skills needed work.  Fortunately, I was good enough to fool the Alliance cameras.  The Agency could penetrate many of my disguises with their surveillance cameras and behavior-detection algorithms. They showed me disguise technologies I couldn't even imagine, like skin creams that temporarily modified your DNA to change the shape of your face, and implants you could insert under the skin and change their shape with a remote control. There were even self-hypnotic techniques for altering your gait, breathing patterns, and other behaviors. It made my disguises seem crude and uninspired.

They weren't the be-all and end-all of technology and engineering, though. They picked my brain in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The only secret I kept to myself was how to defeat the  gadgets. I had 

One morning, instead of being taken to physical training, they sent me to the Director's office.


As I approached the Director's office, the door slid open. "Come in," a deep gravely voice said.

Without saying a word, I sat down.

"I'm Agency Director Kelmot."

"Derek Biggs." I had heard people mention the Director before, but no one said much about him. I tried to get a feel for the man by examining his office. The walls were covered in wood paneling but had no photos or paintings on them. His desk was an immense inlaid wood affair, which looked big enough to hide a body in it.  Something struck me as odd about it. It took me a moment to realize that it was the fact that he had no pictures on it, either. No family photos showing the wife and kids. No image of him with celebrities or public leaders.

"What the devil are you staring at, Biggs?" He asked, his right eyebrow raised.

"Your office. It's so..."


I nodded. "Yeah.  you find clues to a person's life in their office."

He smiled. "Not so in mine, though. Hard to get a read on me, isn't it?"

"Actually, your office tells me a lot. The wood paneling suggests that you prefer tradition, instead of the painted and plastic skinned walls in most offices. The large desk tells me you want to make an impression on people entering the room. You want them to know you are important, and that you have power. The lack of personal effects implies that you don't want anyone coming into this room to know too much about you, probably because it might give them a way to gain some kind of leverage over you. If not that, then you've devoted your life to the job and don't have a family. The business suit suggests a need to further underscore your power and authority."

"Hmmm..." Kelmot rubbed his chin. "Perhaps I need to rethink some of my ."

"Why did you want to see me?"

"Well, my boy," he said, standing up from his desk. "It seems you've reached the end of your training."

"I thought as much." I was surprised at how much the man towered over me. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and looked like he could run through a brick wall without it slowing him down.

He walked around the desk, and over to the wall, where he pressed a knot in the wood. A door opened in the wall. Behind it was an impressive looking bar. The spirits I recognized were relatively rare, which probably meant the others were even rarer.

He stared at me for a moment. "Can pour you a drink.  brandy? Centaurian whiskey?"

"Nothing, thanks."

"Suit yourself," he said, pouring a glass of whiskey for himself. He looked at me as he took a sip. "I have a little job for you. Normally we put cadets through a series of these before they're allowed to operate on their own. We keep them with an  agent until we know we can trust them, and they see that they can trust us."

"I see."

"I don't think you do. I've looked at your files, your psych profile, and how you've behaved since you arrived here. I may know more about you than you know about yourself."

I didn't think that was likely, but I decided to humor him. "Oh?"

"Yes," he cleared his throat. "You're a  and an extreme one at that. Where most cadets coming through here try to make friends  the instructors, the staff, and the other students, you don't. You keep to yourself, practice the things you're taught, and spend your time observing. I'm betting that if I tried to put you through the usual field mission regimen, you'd bolt. We'd bring you back in eventually, and you'd probably leave us no choice but to wipe that brain of yours. That would be a loss. So I'll make you a deal. There's something I want. I've sent other agents to get it, but they all failed. I'll send you with Agent Simmons. She'll--"

"With all due respect, I work--"

"Alone yes, I know. Not this time. Humor me. Just once, work with someone other than your father. Prove to me you can do that, and I'll bump you to full agent status when you get back. No more training missions. You'll have access to our full resources then. If you think you've seen everything we can do for you, you're sorely mistaken." As he spoke, he walked back to his desk and sat down.

"What do you want me to steal?"

"Just a moment," he said, pressing a button on his desk. The door to his office opened. "Join us, Agent Simmons."

Agent Simmons looked to be in her early twenties. She looked athletic, and had a shorter hair style that seemed designed more to stay out of her way than to look attractive. She entered the room silently and sat down on the chair next to mine.

Kelmot pressed a button and the door closed. He must have activated a white noise generator, because the room suddenly sounded as through air was rushing through it. "Simmons, I want you to take Mr. Biggs here on a training mission. You're to guide him, but let him make the decisions. You'll monitor his performance and provide me with a full report on your return here."

"Yes, sir. If I may ask--"

"What's the mission?" He smiled.

She nodded. I thought she seemed a bit eager to please, but it wasn't my place to say anything.

"The Sylkaran Empire is the greatest threat to the Alliance in its history.  The Alliance plants agents in Sylkaran space to gather intelligence. The Agency has its sources in the Sylkaran Empire as well. One of our sources discovered a list of all the Sylkaran agents in Alliance space. She encrypted the list and hid it inside a programmable matter array."

"A what?" I asked. 

"A programmable matter array is a small container about the size of your thumb. It's made of matter that can be electronically reprogrammed to assume different shapes. When we have information or small objects that need to be hand-carried for security reasons, we'll put them inside a programmable matter array. We'll shift the array into some innocuous shape, like an egg or child's toy, then place a molecular lock on it. This way, anyone who might find the PMA thinks it's just a harmless trinket. Even if they suspect that it's a container, the PMA will only unlock if the right decryption key is transmitted to it. Send too many of the wrong key and it will spontaneously combust along with whatever it's carrying."

"Interesting device," I told him. "Is that what you want us to bring back?"

He nodded. "If you bring it back here, we can open it up and retrieve the list. Then the Agency can make it very difficult for the Sylkaran spies to operate in our territory."

"Are you sending us to Sylkaran space, sir?" I thought I detected a hint of fear in Simmons' voice.

"Indeed," Kelmot said. "The list is too important to let the Sylkarans destroy it trying to open the container."

"You said it could assume any number of shapes," I asked him. "Any idea what shape it's currently in? That might help us find it."

"No, but we do have a quantum tracker built into it, an atom that's entangled with an atom in Alliance space. We can tell you within a few feet where the item is."

"Just not what it looks like."

"Right. Any questions?"

"No sir," Simmons said.

"I've got a few," I said. "If this thing is so important, why send a junior agent like Simmons here - no offense - and an unknown like me."

Kelmot turned toward Simmons. "She's not as green as you think. She's one of our top agents, with a lot of successful missions under her belt."

I shrugged. "OK, if she's that good, why send me?"

"You need to see how we operate in the field. Simmons will help you there. Plus, given where the PMA seems to be, we need someone who can get past some of the Sylkaran Empire's best security."

I began to see where he was leading. "Since I know how to crack their security cameras and other devices, I'm your best choice for getting past the Sylkaran security to the PMA."

"Exactly," he said. "Plus, as a cadet, you have far less knowledge of our operations than a full agent does."

"Which makes me less risky and more expendable," I said under my breath.

"Correct," Kelmot said.


The office doors opened and it became abundantly clear that the white noise I thought Kelmot had turned on was in fact the sound of his office moving through the building like a three-dimensional lift. We were just the base's spaceport.

He swept his hands toward to door. "Go on, get going. Your ship is in slip 128. You'll find everything you need aboard, including a 3D printer for anything we forgot."


Simmons contacted the dockmaster on the ship's communication system, requesting permission to depart. I busied myself looking through the ship's supplies.

Kelmot's voice came through the comm system. "Before you go... If you get into trouble out there, there's someone you can try contacting. He's kind of a wild card."

"What do you mean?" I wasn't sure I liked the idea of putting my life in the hands of an unknown.

"He's an Alliance Intelligence Agent. Went rogue. Before that, he was one of their best and most reliable. As near as we can tell, he's still in Sylkaran space. I'll transmit you his recognition code. If you get stuck and need a hand, you can try broadcasting the code on the frequency I'm giving you. He was caught by the Sylkarans and disavowed by Alliance Intelligence, then appeared to have killed two Alliance agents who encountered him. If you do reach out to him--"

"Make sure I'm out of options and don't trust him."


The codes were transmitted into the ship's computer and encrypted.

A beep from the navigation console told us we were cleared to depart. Simmons eased the ship through the hangar doors and out into the atmosphere. Moments later, we were in space.


Simmons taught me to navigate the ship, how its weapons and defenses operated, and demonstrated its various features. We also walked through all the equipment aboard. By the time she was finished, I had a feeling we could just about conquer a planet with what we had aboard. This further convinced me that Simmons was really unnecessary on this job. Besides, I might decide not to go back to the Agency base. I doubted Simmons would entertain that thought.

"We're approaching the neutral zone between the Alliance and Sylkaran regions. I'm stopping to transmit the codes to disable the Alliance monitors in the area," she said, tapping on the controls in front of her. "They'll only be down for a couple of minutes, then we'll slip through."

(End of Part 1)

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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